Island Hopping

June 1, 2003
Campus Gargoyle

I'm an editor at ISLANDS, a little sleeper of a travel magazine drooled over for its photography but quietly prized for its lyrical narrative writing. Any kind of island is fair game for its glossy pages, from Manhattan to an exposed rock in a backyard stream. Most people have never heard of it, but it has a loyal following of graying golf-types and armchair sailors. I discovered it at age ten, when I plucked a 1985 back issue off a heap of dusty magazines at a Rhode Island flea market. I was so thrilled that there was a magazine devoted entirely to the subject of islands that I headed straight for the library to find out if it was still in circulation.

At Duke, I crafted my own curriculum, "island biogeography." My niche interest seemed like a handicap in the job search, because there was no relevant on-campus recruiting; the most useful thing at the Career Fair was the free pen I snagged at the Abercrombie table.

Staring down the barrel of graduation, I got the itch to work for a magazine. Not long after the last graduation thank-you was written, I went to the bookstore, looked at all the magazines, picked out my favorites, and then launched an intense research and letter-writing campaign that not only opened many doors, but also brought me closer to Joe, our mailman. In my letters, I took a very active stance, introducing myself and saying that I would be visiting soon and would like to set up a time to meet. This transformed me from just another easily discarded rÈsumÈ into an actual face and personality.

I planned an interview trip of the East Coast magazine circuit, an eight-day tour de force of self-promotion and neckties. A couple of interviews stemmed from connections with Duke contacts. Going after Esquire, I was stymied by a dead-end network of answering machines. But while I was in New York and had some downtime between interviews, I thought I would drop by, unannounced.

Outside the magazine's offices, I cradled my torn garment bag in my arms, my feet aching, my crumpled dress shirt damp and clinging to my neck in the sweltering heat. I scanned the Esquire masthead for the managing editor, the person usually in charge of internships. I walked in, muttering the name John Kenney under my breath so I wouldn't forget it, and told the security guard, "I'm here to see John Kenney." The guard reached for the phone and dialed his extension. I shifted weight from one sore foot to the other, hoping that I would at least land well when the security guard tossed me and my dirty laundry back onto the street. But to my pleasant surprise, Kenney was not at his desk to rebuff my Avon approach. Dialing another number, the guard said, "John Kenney's appointment is here," and then turned to me. "Go right on up, take the elevator to the eighth floor."

I took a seat in his spacious office, which projected masculine swagger and evoked images of crisp cologne and sophistication. Harvey Keitel shot me a withering glare from a blown-up 1993 Esquire issue on the opposite wall. A New York Mets pennant and a Mookie Wilson 1988 Topps baseball card hung on the wall, along with a photo of a ferocious dog, teeth gnashing. Bookshelves on one side of the room held yellowing back issues, as well as several bottles of wine filled to varying levels. I could tell before I had even met him that John Kenney was as cool as the magazine that he worked for.

I started flipping through an old issue whose cover promised tales of dwarfs, sword swallowing, orgies, and more! I was about to read what it felt like to be shot out of a cannon when a blond-haired man in a blue dress shirt walked in. I sprang to my feet. "Hi, I'm Brad Balukjian," I said, knowing that I had little time to explain what the hell I was doing in his office. "John Kenney," he returned with a firm handshake. "Do you have an appointment?" he asked. "No, but I was in New York, and I love your magazine, and I knew it was a long shot that I would actually get to talk to you, but I thought I'd try," I rambled.

I handed him my rÈsumÈ and publication clips, and we chatted about my interest in the internship. "I'm quite busy today, and I'm actually not even the person that handles interns," he said. "But I will pass your materials on to the woman that is in charge." He was mercifully good-natured about my temerity, but cautioned, "I wouldn't recommend doing this with too many people, because they have a lot going on."

The Esquire experience underscores the importance of taking the initiative when trying to land a job--and also learning about prospective employers, which meant avidly reading magazines and developing a sharp sense of their particular editorial missions. I did end up being offered internships at nine magazines, including Natural History, Columbia Journalism Review, and Smithsonian. And Esquire called a couple of weeks after my meeting with Kenney to offer an interview with the internship coordinator. But by that time, one magazine clearly stood out. When my complimentary rent contract with the parents expired (Mom and Dad, I paid you in love, I swear!), I moved across the country to sun-kissed Santa Barbara to accept an unpaid internship at ISLANDS.

Which brings me to another key in the quest for employment: the work-for-free program, ostensibly abolished by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 but alive and well today in offices all around the country. My internship at ISLANDS taught me the inner workings of producing a magazine and, this winter, helped position me to be hired as research editor when an opening came up. It was no cakewalk, however, to work an internship while living (not to mention eating and sleeping) in a region where the average home goes for about $700,000. After applying at several hotels and other service establishments, I soon learned that, in the real world, my summers of National Science Foundation-backed research studying trees on tropical islands amounts to "We don't have any positions now, but you're welcome to fill out an application," and I ended up toiling part-time in a restaurant.

As is true in many facets of life, hard work and persistence did pay off. Now every day when I walk into my office, I pass by a copy of the 1985 issue of ISLANDS, framed on the wall, that inspired me all those years ago.

Balukjian '02 is the author of "Islands on the Brink," which appeared in the January-February 2002 Duke Magazine.